IndyStar learned this week that the Indiana Department of Education is under investigation after it was reported that it violated federal disability law during the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to federal law, schools must provide “free adequate public education” to every qualified student with a disability. Although schools faced challenges with the sudden closings of classrooms in March, the U.S. Department of Education told schools that they must continue to provide this education and the services required to access it.
A letter from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights said it heard reports that Indiana failed to do so.
Here’s what we know about the claims investigation:
Indiana was notified on Tuesday
The Department of Education’s Civil Rights Bureau posted a letter Tuesday to Secretary of State Katie Jenner informing her that it was investigating the Indiana Department of Education over so-called “disturbing reports” that the state was giving equal access to students with disabilities The COVID-19 pandemic denied education.
In its letter, OCR said it was concerned that Indiana was failing to provide legal access to education for students and was “particularly concerned” at reports that parents of disabled students in Indiana schools had filed several complaints with IDOE, in alleging that students were forced by local school districts into “one size fits all” distance learning programs rather than individual programs tailored to their individual needs.
Jenner, who took office on Monday, said she had asked her team for a full briefing of any complaints received prior to her arrival and was committed to helping schools meet the needs of special needs students.
Indiana is not alone, but it may be the only state agency
Ron Hager, executive education and employment attorney for the National Disability Rights Network, was surprised to learn that OCR was examining the department rather than an individual school district.
“This is definitely new,” he said. “OCR tends not to track states … I don’t know if I’ve heard of any state investigation.”
Hager said he is aware of at least four OCR investigations related to special education services, but IDOE is the only government agency he has heard of is the subject of one.
The Seattle Times reported that a similar letter was sent to the superintendent of the Seattle Public Schools this week.
Problems with special needs education at national level
Hager said the provision of special education services had been an issue from the start of the pandemic when schools abruptly closed.
Some schools tried to bring classes and other services online, while others were shut down entirely. This has improved with the new school year, but it is anything but perfect.
“Unfortunately, it’s still a problem,” he said. “The schools try as hard as they can, but they are overwhelmed. They weren’t prepared to go on for this long, but they still have to find a way to do what the kids need. “
No federal waiver of disability laws
The U.S. Department of Education offered little leeway to special education schools during the pandemic and stressed to schools that despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, they needed to continue to work with special education students.
In April, then-US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos told schools they must continue to provide individual education throughout the pandemic and urged Congress not to forego the requirements of the Disability Education Act, saying it existed no reason why students would have access to free access Adequate public education could not continue “online, through distance learning or other alternative strategies”.
Families seek help
More than two dozen Hoosier families have filed complaints related to COVID-19 with IDOE since March, according to a department spokesman.
Kim Dodson, executive director of The Arc of Indiana, which works for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said her organization has heard from families across the state who are at odds with their school districts and that frustrations are high.
One of them is the family of Dyllan Dague, a student at New Britton Elementary School. In an August complaint, the family alleged that Hamilton Southeastern Schools had not offered him special education and had “not even tried in good faith” to do so since schools closed in March. Dyllan is non-verbal, eats through a tube and has quadriplegia. When HSE decided to start the new school year virtually, it meant that the district was “not only denying it free adequate public education, but also harming it in meaningful and tangible ways: developmentally, intellectually, socially, emotionally and physically” Complaint.
Tendra Duff says she has been requesting homebound services for her twins since July.
Her sons are 4 years old and are in a preschool class in the Westfield-Washington Schools district, which used to mean two and a half hours of class time with occupational, physical, and speech therapy. Both boys were born with Down syndrome and have other medical complications that put them at risk for COVID-19. It’s not safe to send them to personal school, Duff said.
The distant alternative was one hour of video class four days a week, known as “chaos,” and virtual speech therapy once a week. Two months ago, Duff said, the district stopped providing home physiotherapy and occupational therapy.
Christina Beatty said it took her son Xander the entire first semester to get back on track after school finished in March.
Xander, a fifth grader from Grant County with autism and attention deficit disorder, cannot sit in front of a screen and work independently all day, she said.
Beatty said it was “torture” to see her son from grades As and a few Bs go to all the Ds and Fs and not knowing how to help him. Beatty said her son’s IEP was not followed – as required by law – but she doesn’t blame them on his school. Last spring, nobody knew what to do, she said, but she was grateful that they could return to personal school in the fall.
Call IndyStar Education Reporter Arika Herron at 317-201-5620 or email [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter: @ArikaHerron.
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